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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Ridley Me This: Why Isn’t Sir Scott as Great as You Tell Me He Is?

One of the first few columns that I wrote for Movie City News, way back in 2007, was about Ridley Scott and how I felt he was overrated. I look back at that column now and I can see that I’ve improved as a writer since then, that my points could have been stronger, etc. But I think the basic foundation of the piece was solid. It was an opinion piece, like all of my columns are, and I think I made a solid effort to go through Ridley Scott’s filmography and express my opinions about his oeuvre in less than 3,000 words. I expected a dozen or so e-mails, as I usually received, but instead I seemed to have unleashed hell.

I knew Ridley Scott was a revered filmmaker to some movie fans – some of my best friends are Ridley Scott fans! – but I didn’t realize he was such a sacred cow that to say that the man behind 1492: Conquest of Paradise was anything less than a genius was blasphemous. A large portion of the e-mails I got at the time were along the lines of “I agree, glad someone said it,” but there were more than a few that were vicious in their attacks on me, often using my age as a way to refute my claims – of course a 24 year old can’t appreciate the genius of Legend! – and it got nasty. One fellow even wrote to my boss and told him to fire me and then proceeded to list all the reasons why I was “wrong” in my opinion and why I should be struck by lightning.

All of this is my way of saying: villagers, grab your pitchforks because I’m about to tackle your hero once again.

I saw Ridley Scott’s tired Robin Hood this past weekend and I was underwhelmed. It’s not a bad movie. Scott rarely makes bad films, just frequently uninspired ones. I went into it, like I go into every movie (even Sir Ridley Scott’s), with the hope that it will be the greatest film I’ll ever see. Even when I say that I want to hate something, I really don’t. I want to love everything. So, I don’t derive some sick pleasure from seeing a Ridley Scott film and having him reaffirm my beliefs. I want him to prove me wrong so that I could write a long mea culpa because now I finally get him.

I just see very little evidence that Ridley Scott is a more gifted filmmaker than many others who do what he does (like, say, his brother Tony). That doesn’t make him terrible, it doesn’t even make him mediocre, it just makes him overrated. I think he is overrated, by which I mean: he’s held in high-esteem by most critics and film fanatics but I think this is without merit. That doesn’t mean that I think he’s a bad filmmaker. He’s worlds beyond someone like Brett Ratner, for sure. But he has been coasting on Alien and Blade Runner for almost three decades now. The former is a true classic, the latter is silly to me but is loved by sci-fi geeks all over the world and I’ve accepted that. But he hasn’t made anything since those films that could be considered game-changing. Even Gladiator was just an updated sword and sandals flick, not exactly a re-invention of the wheel.

(Digression: Gladiator won Best Picture the year it was released, which is still a tragedy to me. The acting is all over-the-top, which would be fine for a film in this genre, except for the fact that Scott seems to be trying to bring realism into the picture. It was a fun summer flick that people remembered going to and being entertained by. Which is fine, it succeeds on that level for some people. But that does not make it a great film or a film worthy of winning Best Picture at the Oscars. People remember the scenes where Crowe bellows at the crowd and fights a tiger, but those same folks gloss over the fact that the film is too long and there are a lot of scenes of trite dialogue being spouted while the audience goes out for popcorn in between action scenes.

There is an absence of elegance to the film overall, no matter how many times we see Crowe’s hand gliding across the tall grass. Images like that don’t give a film meaning, they are just images. They need to be imbued with meaning by the emotions of the characters. And the characters don’t have real “emotions,” they just do what the plot tells them to. More than anything, what does Ridley Scott do in this film that makes it better because of his involvement? Sure, it looks amazing, but directing is about more than making things look amazing.

He’s the guy in charge of the finished product, how it’s edited, what it looks like, the acting, the flow, etc. Is Gladiator a bad film because it’s too long, pretentious and filled with over-the-top performances? No. It’s not a bad film. Is it Ridley Scott’s fault that it’s too long, pretentious and filled with over-the top performances? Absolutely. It’s just a film that is rated too highly by many folks. It’s fine for what it is, but for me it was ultimately kind of forgettable. If Scott is a great director, then he should be elevating it beyond being something similar to Braveheart. End of Gladiator rant.)

But lately, it seems like Scott doesn’t even care.

Body of Lies had Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe and a script by William Monahan. I was ready to love it because I know that Scott, while overrated, is competent enough to make things look decent. But a large part of directing is helping your actors to make choices. DiCaprio and Crowe are excellent in almost everything, so I understand that you might want to let them run wild, but Ridley Scott is supposed to be a respected filmmaker at this point and has the clout to say something like:

“Hey Leo, I know you really want to do this Southern accent for no real reason because you feel like acting but it’s not really important and it might be a little distracting for our audience. We just want the story to run as smoothly as possible. And Russell, that’s great that you’re such a committed actor that you want to gain a bunch of weight for this particular role, but it doesn’t really add anything to the character. Being slightly overweight is not an acting choice that helps the movie in any real way and I would prefer if you chose a more subtle method of acting.”

Instead, in that movie, it seemed like Scott was very busy fiddling with the camera and as a result, the performances feel disjointed. The movie fails in its look as well, which is unpleasant and kinetic, but it fails first and foremost because it strands its actors. More to the point, I think Scott stranded his actors by allowing them to make choices that were more about them than the film. In other words, sometimes even the best basketball players don’t know that they shouldn’t take thirty shots a game and they need a strong coach to rein them in and get them to play more of a team game. In Body of Lies, Leo and Russell are trying to be MVPs instead of trying to win a championship and it was Ridley Scott’s job to get them to keep their eyes on the prize.

But the biggest problem with Body of Lies is also the biggest problem with Robin Hood and it’s something I never thought I’d say about a Ridley Scott film (other than 1492): it’s boring. As I look back on some of his recent output, though, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised by this. For the past decade, almost every single one of Ridley Scott’s films have been twenty minutes too long, filled with shots that are beautifully framed but contain nothing that moves the plot forward.

The story of Robin Hood, just like the story in Gladiator, is not really that complicated. Or, it shouldn’t be. We just need reasons to like the characters, to root for them to succeed, and hopefully have a few action scenes that compel us forward. I understand that most Robin Hood stories deal tangentially with the Crusades, but we spend way too much time on them in this iteration. Beyond that, the entire film is a first act to a more interesting story. It seems like the film is really two hours of exposition leading up to the beginning of a fascinating film that doesn’t exist. You could say that that’s the fault of the story, or of the screenwriter, but Scott is the director and has enough clout at this point in his career to point the film in the direction he wants. He had a say in what story he told and this is the story he decided to tell, so the blame does rest with him ultimately.

Speaking of which, I was much more interested in the idea of this film when it was called Nottingham because that was a story I’d never seen told before. And there was the interesting twist of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham being the same person. That sounds like a reason to update the Robin Hood tale, a new take on old material. But just another plain old Robin Hood story, even an origin tale? At least the Kevin Costner one – you know, the one where his accent completely disappears halfway through – was trying to be fun. Scott’s version seems to be saying, “this isn’t a fun Robin Hood, this is the real, serious Robin Hood.” Except for the fact that there is no real Robin Hood, so purposefully trying to bring real-world stakes to a folk tale seems pretentious.

I don’t really fault Scott that much when his films fails, though, nor do I think he takes anything off the table when he signs on to do a film. I just think he doesn’t really add anything either. As a result, he will always make a movie that will be exactly as good as it would be with or without him, and no more. He’s a league-average filmmaker, not a visionary artist.

Real artists – like P.T. Anderson or Spike Lee or Lukas Moodysson – wouldn’t sign on to do a Robin Hood movie. Or, if they got paid a fortune to do it, they would make sure it was imbued with something original and unique; they fine-tune it and wouldn’t be afraid to get messy and change things around. In other words, they would make, even of an unoriginal tale, a vision that was uniquely theirs. I don’t think Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood has any vision whatsoever. It’s just a tale told. And not particularly well.

Ridley Scott defenders will always point to the “look” of his films as proof of why he’s great. Well, the “look” of Robin Hood is exactly the same as the “look” of Kingdom of Heaven, so that must make him an auteur, right? Not exactly, since the look of both of those films is similar to the look of something like Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur which is similar to the look of something like Braveheart or going further back, Excalibur. In other words, highly stylized depictions of medieval England all have the same sheen. Know what else this movie looks like? Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. That’s right, the Kevin Costner Robin Hood.

My favorite of Ridley Scott’s films (besides the great Alien) are Black Hawk Down and Matchstick Men. I don’t think either of them are brilliant masterpieces, but they are fine films that are executed perfectly. They look great, to be sure, but they’re also about something. And more than that, the looks of the film deepen our appreciate for what happens on the screen rather than just having swooping camera shots to “wow” us.

Black Hawk Down takes us down to the street level of a modern firefight in a way that had never really been portrayed on screen in such a thrilling way. Scott’s style in the film obscure the actors’ faces often, which doesn’t make it easy to know exactly what’s happening, which is a flaw. But I think it’s a useful flaw, making us understand the chaotic nature of being in a foreign country surrounded by gunfire. And with Matchstick Men, I was impressed by the fact that Scott was willing to step aside and allow the story to unfold naturally. It’s a character piece and Scott allows the characters to stay front and center, with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell’s eccentricities given room to play.

Know what other Ridley Scott movie I really like? A Good Year. It’s nothing wonderful, but it looks beautiful and it’s fun. That last word is a big one because not many of Scott’s films are fun, even the ones that should be. There is a decided lack of fun in Robin Hood or American Gangster or Gladiator, films that should be enjoyable to watch in certain parts. Instead, they all feel cold.

The one thing that A Good Year has going for it, that elevates it, is its warmth. Instead of feeling removed from the characters and their plights, we feel close to them and close to the action. In other words, less wide shots and more close-ups. It’s probably my favorite Crowe performance in a Ridley Scott movie because he’s allowed to have fun and, more than that, he’s allowed to grow as a character. Most of the folks populating Scott’s films remain the same from start to finish. But with those three films – Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, and A Good Year – I thought I might be warming up to Ridley Scott. Alas, his last three films have been big-budget, bloated films that felt cold. I wonder if the critical drubbing of A Good Year hurt Scott enough to make him return to what audiences seem to love.

I want to go back to Scott’s handling of actors, though, because I don’t think Russell Crowe’s collaborations with him have been particularly fruitful for the actor. Crowe’s best performances have all been with other directors (L.A. Confidential with Curtis Hanson; Master and Commander with Peter Weir; and The Insider with Michael Mann), yet he keeps returning to Scott. Is it because he won the Oscar for Gladiator? Because Crowe wasn’t so great in that film, especially not compared to his other performances with better filmmakers. Gladiator consisted of him yelling a lot and fighting people and had a complete absence of subtlety or nuance. What you see was what you got with him; when the character felt something, we knew it immediately because Crowe would express it by exaggerating the emotion.

But to look at the bigger picture, has there ever been a great performance in a Ridley Scott film? There have definitely been good ones because he has worked with great actors like Susan Sarandon, Jeff Bridges and Joaquin Phoenix. But, I don’t think any of them are all-time great performances. The closest would probably be Nicolas Cage in Matchstick Men, which was a truly terrific portrayal and Ridley Scott wisely let Cage run wild with his tics. Sigourney Weaver in Alien was good, but the character truly became iconic in the sequel. If half of directing is coaxing great performances from your actors, then what does it say about a filmmaker who hasn’t gotten many objectively amazing performances from his casts?

Look, you can hate me for having this opinion of Ridley Scott. Clearly, there are a lot of people that will defend the man for every mistake he makes, but I don’t see how you can defend Robin Hood. More than that, there is a basic disconnect between me and Ridley Scott fans because I am not seeing the greatness that they’re seeing. He’s got about eighty movies in the pipeline, maybe one of those will be the masterpiece that turns me around. But so far, I remain unconvinced.

Okay, commence with the hate mail — or better yet, the reasoned arguments to convince me I’m wrong about Ridley Scott …but, please, avoid the personal attacks this time.

Noah Forrest
May 17, 2010

Noah Forrest is a 26-year-old aspiring writer/filmmaker in New York City.

The opinions expressed in these columns are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Movie City News or any of its editors or other contributors.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon